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June 1997

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The Bell debate: taking sides on taking sides

Today's speed of picture transmission from conflict zones and the advent of real-time reporting have created new demands for war reporters. The complexity of the situations covered, difficult and dangerous working conditions, and increasing demands of editors in an ever-more competitive world have also added to the pressures faced by those at the front line.

Recent bloody conflicts have brought the issues to a head, with Martin Bell, after his long stint in Bosnia, sparking a debate by speaking publicly of his disillusionment with the BBC ideal of objective reporting.

At the recent Freedom Forum conference 'News traditions and transitions', Bell, now MP for Tatton, reiterated his call for a 'journalism of attachment'. But this time he was pitched against Michael G Gartner, a Pullitzer prize winner and former president of NBC News, as well as a hall of media men and women who, if not antagonistic to his message, were at least distinctly queasy with them.

Bell started the ball rolling by saying he stood by the need for fairness and impartiality. But he claimed: 'Impartiality and fairness are one thing: objectivity is another. I see nothing objective-like in the relationship between the reporter and the event. Rather, you engage your eyes and ears and your stored experience which are the very essence of the subjective'.

He added: 'You do not report the plight of refugees, or the killing of innocent people in the same turn and terms that you would a royal tour or a flower show or an exchange of parliamentary insults. It requires a certain tact that you reflect the feelings as well as the facts·It is not enough to be a detached outsider practising what I call bystander journalism. We are not apart from the world. We are a part of it'.

Gartner retorted: 'The only thing a journalist should be attached to is trying to tell the truth - with passion, OK; with persuasion, OK; with precision, most certainly. But once you become attached to anything else you become detached in the search for truth and fairness'.

He said: 'The journalist is supposed to explore, to explain, and expose the world, but the journalist is not supposed to change the world. If you want to change the world, become a teacher; if you want to change the world, become a mother; if you want to change the world, become a politician.'

Another critic of Bell's was Jan Macvarish of LM - a title facing a writ from ITN after it questioned the use of pictures taken in Bosnia. She said the journalism of attachment was flawed because not only was it 'deeply patronising to the viewer to suggest that they need a moral filter to the news', but 'the world is not a place for morality plays. It is a world of power politics which is open to analysis, not to moralising.'

However, it was those who spent time in the field who found it most difficult to deal with the black and white arguments of both Bell and Gartner.

Independent feature writer Emma Daly, who covered the war in Bosnia, said everybody she knew tried their best to tell the truth, but she admitted that 'sometimes, there are problems with the idea there are two sides to a story'.

She asked: 'Should you just report everybody's stated position or should you tell the reader or viewer this person may be telling you that they're innocent but actually it seems to me from the evidence available that they're lying to you?'

Keith Miller, and NBC correspondent, was incensed by Bell's suggestion that journalists had a 'higher obligation' to give testimony to what they saw to those other than their readers and viewers. Bell had said only two or three reporters - including himself - had given evidence at the War Crimes Tribunal on atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

Miller said such testimonies would be beneficial to neither the reporter giving evidence or others: 'If they want your testimony they go to your reports, re-run your television spots, but I don't think I would give any court the background information that, I needed to get into a place or out of a place. I think it sets a very bad precedent and I think it could potentially be very dangerous'.

Ian Elliott, a manager of US-funded Radio Liberty when the Soviet Union was crumbling, said: 'We found that although we were in the business to fight censorship and present information objectively with balance, not to store things but simply report·it became increasingly difficult to broadcast all the information that we had, simply because we knew that if we told the Azeris that some of their numbers had been killed by the Armenians, or vice versa, this would stir things up.'

He said when the station carried eyewitness live reports of tanks rolling into Baku, crushing cars with people inside, the station probably 'reported too much at that particular time'. Gartner, though, said such real-time reporting was to be welcomed: 'Technology is more beneficial than damaging if you fight technology with technology and use it to enhance the news-generating process'.

He said it was never right to hold back information: 'Awful consequences sometimes follow from that but awful consequences are the price of freedom'.

Truth, however, is not absolute, said Cathy Aitchinson, of On Air Media Training for Refugees. 'What we need to do is be aware of our perspective and be aware that we are coming from somewhere, even though we are trying our best to be impartial'.

The nearest the debate came to a consensus was when Gartner asked Bell whether he would concede that the journalism of attachment presented dangers when journalists had their own agenda.

Bell admitted his theory was open to abuse by bad journalists. He remained, though, unrepentant on one point. 'I believe', he said, 'that the enemy of good journalism is not, as is commonly supposed, censorship and manipulation by government and other agencies. It is the cynicism and the ambition that sometimes lie behind the journalists. The dangers come from the pressures of the trade and the commercial pressures and the pressures I understand for a sexy lead story.'

And he related a, perhaps apocryphal, tale of a reporter shadowing a sniper: the sniper sees from his hide two passers-by and asks the reporter which one the reporter wants him to shoot. The reporter, realising he is now more than a mere observer of war, is sickened and walks away. The sniper takes out both passers-by - then turns to the reporter and says: 'You could have at least saved one of them'.

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